Monday, May 15, 2006

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)

Kiko's House is unpardonably late in noting the passing of the great Jane Jacobs, but that's what happens when a blogger gets locked into "themed" posts.

Jacobs was one of -- but not exactly of -- a strange breed called the city planner. I have known my share of them as a journalist, including Ed Bacon, the legendary Philadelphia city planner and only such person to ever grace a Time magazine cover, with whom I had a warm professional relationship. (Among Bacon's extended brood was son Kevin -- yes, that Kevin Bacon -- whom I got to know a bit. So you see, I have only two degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon.)

But I digress . . .

Actually, Jacobs was not a planner in the sense that she designed neighborhoods like Ed Bacon did. Although she did dabble in architecture, including designing small apartment buildings, her greatest influence was as a conscience for the Ed Bacons of her time, most notably through her masterwork, "The Death and Life of Cities."

"The Death and Life of Cities" was a blistering critique of the scorched earth U.S. urban renewal policies of the 1950s that sucked the life out of entire neighborhoods, replacing them with freeways and high-rise apartment blocks.

Jacbos and Bacon shared two passions: The wisdom of Benjamin Franklin and the belief that cities were for people, not cars. Jacobs was born and raised in Scranton, Pa., and often cited her childhood neighborhood and her longtime home, New York's Greenwich Village, as ideal neighborhoods.

It was as an urban warrior in New York City in the late 1960s that Jacobs claimed her greatest victory -- a successful campaign to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which had been pushed relentlessly by another urban legend, Gotham development czar Robert Moses, a man arguably more powerful than the mayors he served and not accustomed to being pushed around by a tough talking dame.

In 1969, Jacobs moved to Toronto with her architect husband and two sons in part because of her opposition to the Vietnam War, and she lived there until her death on April 25.

The Economist sent off Jacobs in more eloquent style than I ever could:
Over the years, her themes became grander: the growth of civilisations, the wealth of nations, moral behaviour, all with cities at their core. Her last book, “Dark Age Ahead”, lamented the loss of interdependence in society. Though she hated top-down planning and approved of markets, as any city-lover should, pink-tinted Canada proved more congenial both to writing and to campaigning. The government listened to her, as the rulers of New York had only ever half done.

Not just the workings of cities, but of things in general were a lasting fascination to her. In Scranton, a sooty mining town, she was miserable when the locomotives were fitted with iron skirts that hid how the wheels and pistons moved. On walks all through her life she would converse in imagination with her hero, Benjamin Franklin, explaining to that great inventor the gadgets of the modern age. “I used to tell him”, she said, “how traffic lights worked.” And doubtless, too, how vital it was to get a good crowd gathering, the cars flowing, the storemen shouting, the children playing, the whole economy expanding, from its centre in city life.

No comments: